Women in science and the sexist space shirt

As space probe Philae landed on comet 67P last week, a row erupted over a sexist shirt. Geophysicist Amy Gilligan looks at the under-representation of women in science – and how it can be challenged.

Photo: DLR German Aerospace Center, flickr
Photo: DLR German Aerospace Center, flickr

Last week Philae, a lander deployed by the European Space Agency spacecraft Rosetta, made contact with comet 67P. Rosetta left Earth over 10 years ago and through a series of gravity assists managed to make orbit with a 2km long mass of ice and rock and get something to land on the surface. Around the world progress of Philae was watched nervously.

At the same time, people also ended up seeing a Twitter storm unfold as various Twitter users, including official Twitter accounts of several institutions and scientific bodies, commented approvingly on the sexist shirt worn by project scientist Matt Taylor (many have since deleted their tweets). His shirt, covered in pictures of semi-naked women, was described as “proper cool”. Fortunately, many people, including many women scientists, reacted angrily to the idea that it was okay for someone to wear a clearly misogynistic piece of clothing, and for it to be put in a positive light by their funding bodies and employers. In response they received dismissal and abuse, including being told to “jump off a cliff”.

Matt Taylor has since apologised, saying “I made a big mistake and I offended many people and I am very sorry about this”. That’s good. When people are called out for sexist behaviour it’s refreshing to see them realise that they have done something wrong. Objectifying women in the way this shirt does is not acceptable anywhere and should be challenged. Helping to land something on a comet doesn’t give you a free pass to behave in a sexist way.

The shirt sends the message that this is how (some) scientists view women – simply as sex objects, that women are not welcome in science. The anger about the shirt is not about “vilification of individuals”, as Julie Bindel put it, but anger at many people, beyond Matt Taylor, not noticing there was a problem with the shirt in the first place, and challenging ideas that it’s okay to portray women in this way. #shirtstorm clearly goes beyond one man and his clothing choices.

If you asked someone what a scientist looked like it’s more likely than not that the person that’d come to mind would be male, probably a bit “geeky”, have glasses and maybe a beard. The idea of who is, and who can be, a scientist is reinforced by the relative lack of scientists who are women being shown in the media – a Science of Doctor Who programme last year with Brian Cox didn’t feature any women scientists. This ties in with the idea that women aren’t capable of, or aren’t interested in, science and maths, which itself is a reflection of sexist notions of gender roles in society.

In STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects, women are underrepresented. For undergraduates at UK universities obtaining degrees in physical sciences (which includes physics, chemistry, earth science and materials science) in 2011/12 only 42.6% were women. For computer science (17.4%) and engineering (14.3%) the figures are even more shocking. In physical sciences the proportion of women working or studying in the field shows a marked drop off after undergraduate level, with tiny proportions of women being employed at the professorial level.

In universities, where a high proportion of scientific research is done, measures are being taken to try and address some of gaps, particularly through schemes such as Athena SWAN. Some of this involves relatively simple things like moving the times of seminars so women, who are still more likely to be the ones responsible for childcare, can actually attend them. But as a recent figures from the Equality Challenge Unit show, there is still a long way to go to with tackling gender inequality within academia.

Other attempts have been made to attract girls and young women to STEM subjects – although these have often ended up being pretty sexist in themselves, implying that women plus science equals pink and sparkly. The European Commission’s Science: It’s a Girl Thing! sent the message that women were only interested in science if it was to do with make up. Barbie: I Can be a Computer Engineer has Barbie just creating the “design idea” but needing Brian and Steve to “help turn it into a real game”. Serious attempts at ensuring that women can participate in science will have to challenge ideas that women can only do science if it is presented in a “prettified form”.

Although today my scientific interests are more earth-based, space was the thing that first got me interested in science when I was little. It’s an exciting time for space exploration – we’ve recently had amazing pictures of the planetary accretionary disc, the InSight mission will (hopefully) send a geophysical lander to Mars, and we should soon have images of the surface of Ceres, the first asteroid to be discovered. Women should be at the forefront of the discoveries being made by these and future missions. As well as trying to encourage women to participate in science in the first place, and making sure they can continue as scientists, we have to ensure that sexist behaviour is recognised and challenged.


  1. “obtaining degrees in physical sciences (which includes physics, chemistry, earth science and materials science) in 2011/12 only 42.6% were women. ”

    Pretty close to half… would you be ‘shocked’ if women made up 57% of the graduates in a different field?


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